Yesterday, under the looming threat of severe water shortages, the City of Joliet, located 30 miles Southwest of Chicago, made a decision that will profoundly impact its residents for decades: it chose the City of Chicago as its new water supplier. Its groundwater has been rapidly declining and could be depleted by 2030 without a new solution. Although conservation practices have been implemented, they have been insufficient to reverse the trend. Studies revealed that drawing upon nearby rivers would be ecologically unsustainable, costly and unsafe. The only viable option was for the city to import water from Lake Michigan.
Joliet had two viable options: buy water from Chicago or build a pipeline to Hammond, Indiana. While the Indiana alternative would have given Joliet greater control over its water, Chicago provides both expertise and high-quality water. Either option would lead to significant increases in water bills due to the need for major new water infrastructure, though the Indiana alternative would be more costly. For Chicago, this decision will bring $30 million in annual revenue – great news for the city’s budget, even though it can only be used for its water system.
It is important to note that the State of Illinois does not have limitless access to Lake Michigan’s water resources, which are governed by the Great Lakes Compact. A Supreme Court decree put in place after the reversal of the Chicago River in 1900 allows Illinois an allocation of Lake Michigan water for use outside of the Great Lakes Basin. This allocation requires efficient and coordinated management to benefit Illinois.
At Greenleaf Communities, we welcome the Joliet City Council’s decision. For the past two years, we have studied the region’s water challenges and, ultimately, advocated for the Chicago alternative within a regionalized and collaborative water governance framework. This not only allows for the sharing of costs, risks and benefits, but strengthens the region as a whole by rebuilding municipal ties in the country’s most fragmented urban area. Such a framework must aim for sustainability and the inclusion of a broad range of stakeholders and interests. By adopting One Water principles, a regional water approach could go beyond shared water supply to consider the complete life cycle of water, expand green infrastructure and address climate resilience. This vision was advanced last night by the City of Joliet. They can further it by including neighboring municipalities within a subregional water framework under consideration.
We look forward to working with municipalities and other stakeholders in the region towards our shared, One Water, future.